Drug Lord

The bandit Jesus Malverde has been dead for nearly a century. He's still wanted on both sides of the border.

"His first miracle was for a friend who lost some mules loaded with gold and silver. He asked the bones of Malverde, which were still hanging from the tree, to find his mules again. He found them. So he put Malverde's bones in the box and went to the cemetery where the governor is buried. He bribed the guard to let him bury Malverde there. He buried him like contraband. No one knows where."

Last month, Phoenix police found Malverde in the desert south of town.
A hiker seeking petroglyphs in the South Mountain region stumbled on human skeletal remains. Near the bones was a faded Polaroid in which the victim wore a Jesus Malverde pendant around his neck. The police ran the photo on two television channels, hoping to identify the victim. Both the victim's parents and his girlfriend recognized the pendant and raced down to the police station.

"We know that the victim in the photo was involved very heavily in drugs," says E.G. Fragoso, a homicide detective with the Phoenix Police Department in charge of the South Mountain case. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, people involved in drugs will have this icon in their possession whether it's their belt, pendant, wallet--I've seen everything short of tattoos."

The signs of the saint are everywhere--at least, more places than police care to see. They say they often stumble across homemade shrines during drug raids.

"Malverde is very important to these drug traffickers," says Sergeant Manny Flores, a narcotics agent with the state Department of Public Safety. "They burn candles for this guy. They build altars in their homes. They think he protects them, not only from their own kind, but from police officers. They pray to Malverde and they think they're invincible. That's why they're so violent."

When Flores recently served a search warrant at a drug stronghold near I-17 and Thomas, he wasn't surprised to see the framed face of the renegade saint Jesus Malverde at the center of a makeshift shrine. After 300 similar busts, the sinister visage has become as familiar as the sight of an SKS assault rifle.

The house was loaded with signs of its inhabitants' profession: 50 pounds of marijuana, three kilos of cocaine, two pounds of crystal methamphetamine, $75,000 cash and some exotic weaponry littered the carpet. But what struck the 20-year DPS veteran was the face of the narcosanto framed next to a portrait of the Virgin Mary. The devilishly handsome narcosanto seemed better suited to a spaghetti Western than an altar.

A few years ago, during a drug bust in Mesa, Flores was nearly run over by a Sinaloan drug dealer in a Dodge Ram Charger. Flores shot and killed the driver. In another altercation on 33rd Avenue and Roosevelt, a group of Sinaloan Cowboys rammed an officer on Flores' squad, breaking his left ankle. In both incidents, the suspects were wearing Malverde pendants and SKS assault rifle medallions mounted on gold chains.

"Not everyone who wears the Malverde necklace is a drug dealer," says Flores, who trains police officers to recognize and deal with the Cowboys. "But when I see someone wearing a Malverde pendant, a white cowboy hat, $400 boots and gold chains, I suspect they're connected with the drug trade."

Frank Chavez, a Phoenix homicide detective, has seen nearly a dozen Malverde shrines at crime scenes. A particularly ornate one is still lodged in his memory. Chavez stumbled across it as he was investigating a shoot-out in an apartment on 30th Avenue south of McDowell Road, the headquarters of two Sinaloan drug dealers. As the detective picked through the gruesome scene--a body, baggies of marijuana, a semiautomatic handgun and a revolver lay strewn about the floor--he discovered a makeshift shrine inside a closet. Surrounding a plaster bust of Jesus Malverde were votive candles, an assortment of coins and dollar bills, and rotting food.

"Drug dealers make offers, give candles and money so they can be blessed with lots of profit and send it 'back to their families' in Mexico," says Chavez.

Sometimes the saint fails to come through.
Last year, for instance, Chavez helped convict a 32-year-old Sinaloan drug merchant whose deep faith in Malverde was revealed in a letter he delivered to a witness prior to his trial. The suspect had been involved in a drive-by shooting to retaliate against a rival drug dealer. "He was trying to get a witness not to change her story, but to ask her to be kind and tell the truth. In the letter, he tells this lady that he had set aside a special devotion for Jesus Malverde so that his trial would go his way instead of ours. It didn't happen. He got convicted of second-degree murder."

Even when the saint fails them, Malverde's followers remain steadfast devotees. "It's as if you had a personal lawyer in heaven to plead your case," says Santos Vega, the ASU researcher. "If you were a drug dealer, your need might be to make a certain deal and get the money you're expecting without experiencing any problems. If Malverde has been recommended by others, you're going to try him out."

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